Episode 60: Kitten Rescues, Lip-Syncing and Christmas Traffic Stops: Your Guide to Clickbait Copaganda
Citations Needed | December 12, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yeah, thanks so much for the support we have and this holiday season, if you’re giving the gift, I guess it’s a pretty weird gift to give someone, but you should say, ‘I donated’ or ‘I supported Citations Needed on your behalf.’
Nima: And I’m sure they will love that.
Adam: This is the hot new gift item. Imagine your loved one hearing their name being read on the show.
Nima: It’s true, and I’m sure they will really think that that’s a great gift that you gave them and not be upset about that at all.
Adam: Yeah, we’re utterly shameless. Anyway, the media, local and national, print and TV alike, they love what we call and what we’ve called previously: copaganda. “Copaganda” is a term generally used to describe puff pieces, typically fed to local news by the police themselves, that’s designed to make the police look good and generally improve their overall brand with the public. This type of journalism is most apparent in it’s Buzzfeed-y clickbait iteration, which we call clickbait copaganda.
Nima: Stories involving patrolmen getting cats out of car engines, helping little Jimmy find his stolen bike, raising money for charity, white cops hugging black kids, police handing out Christmas presents or gift cards, all these stories do really well on social media and help burnish the perception and the reputation of police, especially in this age of Black Lives Matter.
Adam: Today we’re going to examine the increasing virality of pro-police agitprop. We’re going to dissect how organic these stories actually are and some are, and one by one we’re going to lay out the five primary genres of clickbait copaganda.
Nima: We’ll be speaking today with Ashoka Jegroo, a journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered protests from Santiago, Chile all the way up here to New York City. He has written for The Appeal, truthout, Fusion and Mask Magazine.
Ashoka Jegroo: In my view, it’s absurd on its face to try to like approach the relationship between police and black and brown communities as one where there just needs to be better trust or better relationships between pretty much an oppressive force which historically oppressed black and brown communities in America for centuries. What the police mean when they say better community relations is when, you know, black and brown people don’t complain about getting arrested for bullshit. That’s the peace they want.
Adam: Copaganda is a sort of broad pejorative use for media that makes police look good. It ranges from police shows, which we’ve talked about on the show pretty exhaustively, it involves local media breeding police stenography, but we’re gonna do a specific kind of capaganda for the purposes of the show, which we call clickbait copaganda, which is stories that are supposed to be viral or get lots of clicks that are usually kind of saccharine and spread on social media. Feel good cop stories. So this is broken down into five general genres of copaganda. The first one is the police officer saves a puppy, kitten or a litter of birds or some other small little cute animal.
Nima: (Laughs.) Or a murder of crows.
Adam: (Chuckles.) A murder of crows. The second is ride-alongs, which is where a journalists goes along with a cop and gets into the nitty gritty of what it’s like to be a police officer. The third one is when a police officer or police officers piggyback off a viral meme to get clicks and the local media publishes that. Typically that’s what makes it viral. And then the fourth is a local news reporter does police training. This is where they learn how difficult it is to make split second decisions as to whether or not unloading your round into an African American is actually, is actually quite difficult. This is the sort of put yourself in the shoes of the police.
Nima: And basically you can’t not shoot an unarmed black kid.
Adam: Yeah. Well trust me, if you had to go through this training, it looks, it’s super, super hard.
Nima: And then the fifth and final piece of copaganda that we’re going to go through is actually, I think our favorite, which is when the cops pull people over for alleged traffic violations, but surprise them with gift cards or Christmas presents depending on the season. Sometimes cops will just walk up to random people on the street and start accosting them until it’s revealed that actually it’s a sweetheart cop and they’re just giving them a gift.
Adam: To begin, we’re going to analyze the rapidly, exponentially increasing story about the police saving kittens, cats or small puppies. For the purposes of this episode, we did an unscientific survey that showed a direct correlation between bad PR for the police and a rise in stories about them saving kittens. So the New York Post, which is New York’s go to PR dump for the NYPD, they didn’t have a single story about the NYPD saving kittens before the murder of Eric Garner in 2014, which is really what kind of started the modern iteration of Black Lives Matter. And it started the year prior, but that was really where it took off in August of 2014. And since his death in July of 2014, they’ve had roughly ten stories in the New York Post about police officers saving kittens.
Nima: The first of which appeared in August 2014 coincidentally and its headline, “Officers Saved Trapped Kitten From Car Engine.” This was followed up not quite a year later in June 2015 when we learned also from the Post that a “Cop Rescues a Kitten From a Car Engine.”
Adam: And then on June 24, 2015, ten days later, another kitten was also in a cop car engine, I think the cops need to manage their engines. So this was ten days later, we’re not saying they’re planting kittens in their engines, we’re just saying that within a ten-day span in Queens they had two kitten rescues.
Nima: That’s kind of what happens in Queens.
Adam: Yeah. And what this is before we go, I don’t want to be clear, it’s not as if cops probably weren’t saving kittens before, it’s that it was clear with the rise of Black Lives Matter, the NYPD wanted to be proactive about working on their image and that anytime they did something good or did something vaguely good-
Nima: They let the press know about it.
Adam: Well, there was an effort for police officers to let their supervisors and thus the press and their public relations department know about it. So these aren’t crisis kitten actors. It’s not like they’re, at least I don’t think they are, it’s not like they’re staging these things, but I think there’s absolutely a new emphasis on a sort of kinder, gentler machine gun hand and this kept going and going. In March of 2016, “Cops Save Adorable Kittens Trapped in Suitcase.”
Nima: In June of 2016, “Cops Rescue Adorable Kitten Stuck Underneath Car.”
Adam: In January of 2017, “Kitty Trapped in Car Engine Scratches Elite NYPD Officer.” Ooooohh.
Adam: How can you not back the blue after reading that?
Nima: In February 2017, uh, “This Kitten is the NYPD’s Friskiest Officer.”
Adam: This is just a story about a cat who’s in the police department, not necessarily a cat saving story, but still a NYPD kitten story nonetheless.
Nima: (Laughing ) Just a cat working story.
Adam: Uh, August of 2017, “Cops Rescue Kitten Trapped in Queens Storm Drain.” June of 2018, “NYPD Cops Rescue Kitten Trapped Under Car.” Apparently cars are really bad for kittens when they’re in the proximity of police officers.
Nima: Most of these stories are simply the New York Post lazily reposting the NYPD’s own social media feeds, but others are the Post really kind of showing up, recording, taking pictures at the rescue site, like the kitty rescue site to maximize this copaganda affect. The police department understandably, has gotten much more proactive with their image making image management. And of course, as we document a lot on this show, the local media is always there to lend a helping hand.
Adam: So yeah. So one story in particular, the “Tiny Cat Rescued From Cop Car [Engine],” June 25, 2015, a New York Post reporter has a picture of the cat inside the car. Now bear with me here. (Laughs) This means that the police saw a cat in the car and then notified the New York Post who subsequently drove to the location and then took pictures of the cops rescuing the cat prior to the rescue. That’s a little weird. That’s sort of unusual. Now again, I don’t think these cops are, you know, mustache twirling villains are not Vincent Price, they’re not, you know, ‘Mwa ha ha I’m going to kill cats.’ There is a sort of bit of um, contrivance here going on. Right? Wow, The New York Daily News did the same thing. The New York Daily News as well, did not have a single kitten saving related story before Garner’s death and has since had eleven such stories. June 2015, December 2015. January 2016. We won’t go on and on, but you get sort of a general idea.
Nima: Yeah. Dogs are getting rescued. Kittens are getting rescued. Transit cops hopping down into subway tracks to rescue a nervous cat, dodging cars on a highway, finding kittens in a discarded suitcase and then adopting them as the-
Adam: They adopted the kittens allegedly.
Nima: Um, so yeah, on and on and on. There’s a lot of kitten rescuing going on.
Adam: Now, even the high brow, you know, jazz music, Starbucks, New York Times got in the act, so the NYPD in December 2015 launched their Strategic Response Group. They had announced the year prior and there was a lot of backlash because it was designed specifically to monitor protests and they said they were going to be carrying machine guns and this led to people being a little dubious about why that would be so then they got rid of the machine guns and they officially launched in December of 2015. And then in January 2016, lo and behold, a member of the Strategic Response Group rescues another kitten from the sinister clutches of another car engine. There appears to be a major crisis of kittens in car engines. So this was a story that was in The New York Times that specifically was used to make the Strategic Response Group sort of look good again. Now I’m sure this happened. I’m sure they rescued this kitten, but again, why are we emphasizing this? Why’s this going viral? Why is The New York fucking Times reporting on a goddamn cat in an engine?
Nima: So the St. Louis County Police Department, which was understandably under very heavy scrutiny following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, released a calendar, a pinup calendar featuring what else? Cops and kittens! And they started doing this back in 2016 and have continued since.
Adam: And the headline for the local Fox affiliate was, “Paw and Order Calendar Features Hunky Viral St. Louis County Officers With Cats.”
Adam: There was one instance in 2016 where BuzzFeed published a series of articles about how they love cats and animals. I’m going to read you three articles from BuzzFeed in a two week span in 2016 in May. “This 5-Year-Old Girl May Have Persuaded a Police Force to Get a “‘Police Cat.’ They aren’t [just a] kitten.” This was a day later, “This Cop Rescued A Kitten Left In The Rain And Now They’re a Crime Fighting Duo. Pawing out crime.” And this was a few weeks earlier, “This Police Officer Showed Up To A Routine Call And Ended Up Falling In Love With a Puppy. OMG Kylo 4EVER.” So the police create these, this is not just in the NYPD, a lot of police officers in an effort to, again, help their image. Right? This is a sort of general public relations thing. They want to focus on and emphasize stories that involve them being super cute with puppies and kittens. So, this is a trend we see again the CIA does this a lot. Another BuzzFeed headline from 2017 read, “These Dogs Are Training To Become CIA Agents And They’re Doing A Very Good Job, Yes, They Are.”
Nima: Oh, you didn’t do that in a doggy voice, Adam.
Adam: Not going to happen. And the sub headline is, “They servez and also protecc” with two ‘C’s, which is sort of weird internet speak for like some childlike affection for dogs. The CIA frequently tweets up pictures of CIA dogs, um, left unmentioned is the fact the CIA used dogs as a means of torture in Guantanamo.
Nima: Well, yeah. All the kind of emphasis on cops and canine units are seen like, ‘oh, look at those adorable German shepherds.’ And it’s like, well, not everyone thinks they’re adorable, especially when they’re attacking protesters.
Adam: Right. So this is a, again, this is not particularly shocking. This is just a common thing you see, and there’s been a huge, huge, huge uptick in this in the last five years since Black Lives Matter started, that these stories are sort of natural things that happen organically. Uh, the pictures are, I would say 85, 90 percent of the time they’re taken by the police themselves. They’re posted on police’s social media. Um, and this is probably, this is almost certainly forwarded by the police department’s public relations department to journalists who need content. And then eventually, you know, they do a story on it. Then that story is used on social media and then this is later referred to as it being viral. Now sometimes these stories about police officers dancing or doing whatever the “Macarena” are legitimately viral, but a lot of times they’re viral because they’re on the local news and they’re on the local news because the PR departments of the police sent them to the local news.
Nima: Yes. Beyond the cops-with-cute-pets kind of propaganda, we also see often in the press what is known as the ride-along where journalists will play cops for a day and be taken around by patrol men and women in their cars and they get to turn on the lights and they get to put on bulletproof vests and they get to evict people or they get to arrest people or see that done and act very tough in the process.
Adam: Yeah. The journalist always likes to frame it as an exclusive. You see this a lot. The local CBS station said, “Exclusive: LAPD Takes CBS2 On Ride-Along With New Task Force.” Uh, The Guardian had an exclusive Los Angeles Police Department ride-along. Basically this is the reporter reaching out to the comms department or the police or vice versa and saying, ‘would you like to go in the backseat of our car to kind of get in the mind of a day-to-day of what police officers do?’ This is very similar to the show Cops basically. Now these reports which are, which are almost always very sycophantic, they’re almost always very friendly to the police are a version of the embedded journalism you saw in Iraq, right? Because if you embed with people you’re more likely to sympathize with them.
Nima: Right. Then you have favorable coverage because you’re seeing their perspective. You’re seeing their job through their eyes.
Adam: The third common clickbait copaganda is what we’ll call the kind of meme cop, which is the police department or police officer who does a video, typically a video thought not always, of like a popular meme, like the mannequin contest —
Nima: Or like lip sync challenges or like a bunch of cops dancing to the same thing at the same time.
Adam: And local news and cable news absolutely loves these.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Megyn Kelly: Good morning everyone and welcome to the show. I’m Megyn Kelly and we’ve got a lot to get to today, including a heated lip sync battle with police departments.
Man #1: Chicago cops from the 14th District giving their take on the Queen classic.
Man #2: There’s also now a social media challenge underway and that’s going viral. It shows the cops in a really different light.
Man #3: Concord police released their version last month. (Rascal Flatts “Life is a Highway”)
Man #4: Show who they are, really show their personality, it’s not just the badge that they wear.
Man #5: At a time when many viral videos of police spark controversy, these clips are getting millions of views showing the lighter side of the men and women in blue.
Man #6: Lip syncing Dover police officer, he has been in our studio, he’s at it again, only this time his partner is in on the action.
Woman #1: Police agencies across the country have been posting videos and challenging other departments to take heart, but they’re gonna have a tough time beating this crew.
Man #7: Admittedly, Livermore police may be a little late to the game on the lip sync challenge.
Woman: #2: Ah, but they’re still putting their own unique spin on it.
Woman #3: We’ve brought you the story of several officers in Texas participating in a lip sync battle. Well now the Crandall PD just joined in. Listen. (Newsboys “God’s Not Dead”)
Man #8: Is it a crime to love music as much as they do. If singing is wrong, they don’t want to be right. (Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”)
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: For these cop memes, which sometimes take the form of like a whole bunch of uniformed cops doing the “Thriller” dance, that sort of thing, there’s this total double standard with how the media frames these things, so when the cops in the US do it, it’s super cool or cute or very viral and like, ‘oh look, they are cops that get to have fun while also serving and protecting’ and yet when we see the same thing happen in other countries, especially countries that we are not supposed to think very positively about, oftentimes, those kind of viral videos, the sort of lockstep, everyone looks the same, doing the same thing stops being cute. So for example, CNN is super fawning when it’s talking about how US state governments co-op these memes however, when it’s China, they have headlines like quote, “China’s government is trying to hijack a viral meme for propaganda.” End quote.
Adam: And it’s the exact same thing. The meme in question was, there was a meme in China from this for the super wealthy where they were acting like they were falling out of their car and they took a picture of them on Instagram or on Twitter with all their expensive items spread out. The joke was to show all your expensive items. So the Chinese government thought this was promoting ostentatious notions of wealth and then had one where workers like firefighters or nurses were, had things that came out of their purse, but it was like for when it was a firefighter, it was, you know, a hatchet or something to sort of rescue people with. And the idea was they were trying to promote like a common good thing, but this is, this is China’s government is trying to hijack a viral meme for propaganda.
Nima: But it was seen as so malicious.
Adam: Right. But we would never say the NYPD hijacks a meme for propaganda. That would never be something that would ever be said even though it’s the exact same thing. This is something that Alex Rubinstein pointed out. He had noted that how we view government propaganda seems to be entirely based on which government is the one doing it.
Nima: Surprise, surprise.
Adam: A general theme you may be noticing in this show.
Nima: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. So we should also note earlier this month, in early December 2018, one of these like lip sync viral videos from a police department in Concord, California, which is in the Bay area, garnered nearly 80,000 views on Youtube but it was reported recently that to make the video of the cops lip syncing the police department hired like a professional production company and paid them $34,000 to make this lip sync video. And it was also reported that that $34,000 all came from asset forfeiture. So that’s basically taking money from people that they arrest and then repurposing it into this viral video that when you break it down based on the views and the money that was spent, the exorbitant amount of money that was spent, $34,000, it breaks down to like $0.70 a click which actually is pretty bad if you’re going for cost effective PR. But anyway, moving on. Our fourth type of copaganda that is seen all the time in the media is the journalist goes through police training. And as Adam mentioned at the top of the show, these usually center on what they like to describe as having to make split second decisions.
Adam: Yeah. This is a sort of variation on the ride-along. It’s where a local reporter puts themselves in the shoes of the police with the implication being is that these split second decisions are very hard. So I’m going to read off a series of headlines and I want you to tell me if you notice a pattern. CBS LaFayette, Indiana, “Use of Force: How police train to make split-second decisions.” NBC Miami, “Shoot or Not To Shoot? How Police Make The Split-Second Decision.” NBC South Bend, Indiana, “Split-second decision: Elkhart Police put NewsCenter 16 to the test.”
Nima: CBS Garner, North Carolina, “Garner Police train to make split-second decisions.” Fox 34 Alabama, “Police training focuses on split-second decision making.” CBS Des Moines, Iowa, “Simulations train Iowa officers for split-second decisions.” CBS Cincinnati, Ohio, “Split second decisions: Middletown police go through shoot/don’t shoot scenarios.” CBS Providence, Rhode Island, “Police use high tech to train for split-second decisions.” ABC Seattle, Washington, “Shooting simulator trains Lynnwood police to make split-second decisions.”
Adam: This could literally go on for another thirty minutes, but you get the general idea.
Nima: I was actually going to go on for the next thirty minutes.
Adam: (Chuckles.) If it sounds like a script, it’s because it is. Police departments oftentimes will use the same public relations firms are used the same public relations consultants or consult with the same pro-police think tanks and they generally they love this story. This story really kind of muddies the water about what police shootings are about, which is there are about a split second decision that kind of could go either way and it goes badly. Right?
Nima: Right. ‘Hey, anyone, anyone could do what those cops did.’
Adam: Right. And if you watch these stories, almost every single one of them comes away thinking, ‘Holy cow, that’s super hard, I don’t think I would’ve made a different decision.’
Nima: Right. Which is also missing the point that these same outlets and the same police propaganda units and PR departments are the first ones to always talk about what a rarefied job being a police officer is and that not anyone can just do it. And that’s what makes it so impressive and so heroic and so special. And yet then all we get are the same journalist training stories about how, ‘yeah, wow, I guess that really is hard, I can totally see why they murdered that 12-year-old boy.’ And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no. Like it’s someone’s job to not murder a 12-year-old boy. It’s not your job to have, like, a fake gun in a simulator and you’re already decided that you’re fearing for your life. That’s not your job to do. So it’s this simultaneous they are specialized in what they do and then justifying their terrible routine actions by saying, ‘hey, anyone could just kill a kid.’
Adam: Yeah, which is of course the only implication of the whole shtick. The fifth genre we want to talk about is I think Nima and I’s least favorite, which is why we saved it for the last, in the sense that it’s our favorite, if you know what I mean? It’s the most ridiculous and the most cynical, the most gross, and this is the Christmas themed, which is why we saved this episode for Christmas because we’re thinking about you —
Adam: This is a Christmas gift traffic pullover that has gotten increasingly popular and gets increasingly popular every year over the last three years I think is more or less how old it is? And this is an iteration of the sort of general do goodie stories. We could literally spend seven hours going over-
Nima: (Laughing.) We have so many examples of these. We have to literally tell ourselves to not do all of them.
Adam: We’re going to list off the general do goodie stories to give you an example of what we’re talking about before we drill down into the Christmas iteration of this. KMTR, Oregon, “Police Pull Family of Four From Car, Tuck Them In At a Motel.” Where the police literally tucked in a family at a motel.
Nima: There’s one where, uh, “On His Last Day, Police Officer Gives Out Gift Cards Instead of Tickets.” That’s from Minnesota KARE, this story was also featured in a video that was published by USA Today.
Adam: The TODAY show, “Officer ‘pays it forward’ with electronic tablet for girl at lemonade stand.”
Nima: Cops Buy Them a Car Seat Instead of Slapping Family With a Ticket.” That’s from Michigan, WXMI.
Adam: “Youth Baseball League Helps Chicago Police Make Impact on Violent Neighborhood.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You get the general idea, but our favorite iteration of this is that over, this started in 2015 and has since spread to dozens of other police departments and thus local media outlets who work for those police departments, where the police will pull someone over and instead of giving them a ticket, ostensibly they’ve pulled them over for some traffic violation, but instead of giving them a ticket, they’ll give them a gift. Either —
Nima: It’s so fucked up.
Adam: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing and it’s very, very popular.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Woman #1: Its something no one wants to see, flashing police lights in the rear view mirror. But these drivers are in for a surprise. Instead of a pricey ticket, they’re getting a gift! Officer Dylan Combs and Sergeant Elana Wantmore were on a mission to spread holiday cheer. The officers stopped unsuspecting drivers.
Man #1: The guy driving that truck now saying, “uh oh!” What’d you think when you see those flashing lights behind you?
Man #2: It wasn’t good. I was worried about getting a ticket
Man #3: NYPD had some real surprises today for kids and their parents. The officers boarded buses and even made car stops, not to give out tickets, but instead to give away toys.
Policeman #1: You have your driver’s license with ya?
Civilian #1: Yes sir.
Policeman #1: You didn’t come to a complete stop back there you just kind of went right through it.
Man #5: Parma Heights police making this traffic stop, but the driver about to get her surprise instead of a ticket, the officer has one of these bags in his car, some food to help build a holiday feast.
Policeman #2: I want to thank you for your attention to safety.
Woman #2: Rewarding them with $100 Meyer gift cards.
Woman #3: Okay. No one likes getting pulled over by the police except for the drivers in our next story. And Ross, this is paying it forward.
Man #6: These drivers are in for a surprise.
Man #7: Instead of tickets, they’ll be given gifts.
Policeman #3: Now we have a gift for you. Isn’t that wonderful?
Civilian #2: Yeah. You guys want to come out?
Civilian #3: I think I want to get pulled over again.
Man #9: Instead of being left with a ticket, they all left with smiles.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: There was one instance in, you’re going to see this a lot more, this is, if you haven’t seen it, this year, by the time this episode airs, you’ll almost certainly see it before Christmas. Uh, there was one episode in Northern Michigan where the Northern Michigan police deputies pulled people over to traffic stop and gave them gifts and there’s this gem I want to read to you, which I think is sort of the the quintessence of this kind of power tripping sadism, the article read quote, “But these police officers and sheriff’s deputies aren’t handing out tickets. “The reaction is priceless,” said Deputy Jeff Greiser, with the Roscommon County Sheriff’s Department. “When they tear up like that, you really know you did them a good favor.”
Adam: Um, well thanks.
Nima: It’s like, or I could have continued and not been stopped by a cop.
Adam: Yeah, they do this for, for poor people and for black people and they’re like, they pulled them over and of course they’re scared shitless because you’ve been pulled over. These stories start off with this, they set the scene. ‘There’s nothing worse than that sinking feeling of the traffic lights in your rear view mirror, but oh, here comes the twist! They’re giving you a gift’ and it’s like, fuck you. What is that? That’s just playing with a gerbil in a cage. Like you’re just toying with them.
Nima: And it’s also setting up potentially terrible situations where maybe people get really scared when the cops pull them over and make decisions that they otherwise would not have made. But this is all about presenting police officers as kindhearted givers and especially during the Christmas season, which gets everyone warm and fuzzy that, nope, you didn’t get a ticket for your fender, for your tail light, for your turn signal, whatever. Instead you get gift cards and that’s how you know that cops are really looking out for you and cops are everyone’s best friend.
Adam: And the important thing to note is this is totally unconstitutional. Lots of constitutional scholars and legal experts have looked at this over the last couple of years and said, you can’t do this. Orin Kerr at The Washington Post in an article headlined, “No, the police can’t pull over drivers to give them gifts.” Basically said that this is not at all legal. And of course, that’s kind of beside the point, right? The issue is not that it’s illegal and unconstitutional, although that’s kind of a nice kicker card. Uh, the issue is that there, that there’s a kind of sadism here that you’re sort of-
Nima: Right. Well you’re deliberately scaring people because interactions with cops are not generally thought of as positive.
Adam: Yeah. You’re, you’re committing kind of temporary emotional terrorism and then saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay because I gave them, I guess like a, like a game of monopoly or — ”?
Nima: Like a gift card to Arby’s?
Adam: Because they show up with these gifts, these like wrapped gifts and they’re like, ‘Here you go, ma’am.’ And it’s something like, you know, some dipshit with, with, with wrap around Oakleys and a buzz cut and some like scared poor black woman is like, ‘thanks? I guess thank you for not shooting me or murdering me or giving me a ticket.’ And again-
Nima: the worst are where they like make them hug the cops, like on the radio?
Adam: Oh, that really creepy hug and they’re always like, ‘Yeah!’ And you’re like, ‘Oh.’
Nima: It’s really horrible.
Adam: And these are nice people. Like they’re not cynics. They’re usually appreciative of it on some level, but again, I’m sure on an individual basis these cops probably think that they’re like doing good. I think they probably think this is like a version of good and I didn’t want to read too much into the intent, but um, but in the aggregate, these things are pretty, are pretty gross.
Nima: Systematically this is a really messed up thing to do to people.
Adam: Yeah. Cops should not be doing this kind of emotional terrorism on people. If you’re going to pull people over, it should be with good cause, not because you want to give them a gift certificate to Applebee’s. That’s my personal opinion.
Nima: That’s just because you hate Christmas.
Adam: Yeah, sure. I have a dark, I have a dark heart. I actually hate things. I’m a hater.
Nima: (Laughs.) Um, so to talk more about this clickbait copaganda, we’re going to be joined by journalist, Ashoka Jegroo, a native of Brooklyn, New York, who has covered protests from New York City all the way down to Santiago, Chile. He has written for The Appeal, Fusion, truthout and Mask Magazine. He’ll join us in just a sec. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Ashoka Jegroo. Ash, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Ashoka Jegroo: Thanks. Good to be here. Good to be here.
Adam: So you’ve been one of the foremost documenters of clickbait propaganda.
Ashoka Jegroo: Haha. Okay.
Adam: Well you’ve been very involved in Black Lives Matter since the beginning.
Ashoka Jegroo: Yes.
Adam: Now obviously there has been a shift as scrutiny of the police has increased over the last four years, five years, there’s been a corollary effort by the police to kind of polish their image. Can you give our listeners a quick breakdown, in your opinion, about what the motive behind a lot of this clickbait copaganda is, what it’s kind of worst features are and how in your experience do activists in Black Lives Matter respond to these kinds of stories when they read them?
Ashoka Jegroo: Okay as far as the function they play, I guess they play multiple functions primarily just to, I guess establish the legitimacy of the police in NYC and particularly NYPD and their authority and the fact, you know, cementing in people’s minds that these are the good guys or whatever. They’re protecting you, they’re serving you and they might even buy you a gift here and there. They might, buy something you need, buy you tickets to a Hamilton show or something like that.
Nima: Oh yeah.
Ashoka Jegroo: And I’ve gotten really cynical after four years after Black Lives Matter, like no matter what, there will be somebody out there willing to defend the cops no matter what the police do, partially because, or a largely because of copaganda, like, you know, the articles we see in the Post or The Daily News and also because of like TV shows and movies. Like how many, I remember, there’s this new show called The Rookie coming out or whatever. I remember seeing signs everywhere with this white cop looking into the distance nobly and I’m like, it’s just plastered everywhere. The Rookie. Like he’s going to save us all this cop. It’s just ridiculous.
Nima: And the joke about that one is that the rookie is like forty years old, which is apparently, that’s apparently supposed to be like, ‘oh shucks, isn’t that adorable?’ And it’s like, yeah, but he probably could do something else. He could get a different job. He doesn’t have to get that job.
Ashoka Jegroo: And also like, like more seemingly benign shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine I believe it’s called or something like that?
Ashoka Jegroo: The opening for that show, the precinct that is shown is one in like, I think near Downtown Brooklyn, whatever. I’ve been at protests where people have been arrested. I’ve been arrested and been sent to that precinct and been locked up in there. So yeah, I don’t think it’s a funny place to be or whatever like that. So, and I know it was a popular show. I mean it got canceled then people went crazy on Twitter and like —
Adam: It’s back now.
Ashoka Jegroo: Oh god.
Adam: It got un-canceled.
Nima: Yeah. The system works.
Ashoka Jegroo: Even like radicals are that attached to this damn show portraying the cops as like, you know, just like funny good guy just trying to do their best and like, oh please. And as far as how Black Lives Matter activists respond to these articles, I mean they respond the same way I do. I mean like I know plenty of people participate in, you know, anti-police protests or whatever, plenty of abolitionists. And they laugh at it the same way I do. They know it’s obviously ridiculous and I mean a lot of people on the street will also, you know, just regular people will just tell you like, yeah, obviously the Post is bullshit, fuck the police or whatever. So, um, I mean it depends I guess. It depends.
Nima: So much of this, and especially what Adam and I have been talking about on this episode in particular, are the kind of articles that make cops, not only relatable but like super cute and nonthreatening. I think that’s a major part of this type of clickbait copaganda. So like, you know, “A community of color uses yoga to improve ties with the NYPD” reported PBS, you know, uh, we’ve talked about the kittens and the puppies saved by cops now, you know, that used to be the realm of firefighters using their ladders to save kittens from trees in like suburban communities. That’s like a common Americana type trope. But transferring that to the cops I think is like a really specific way to defang the way cops actually act and how threatening they are to so many communities. You know why do you think the media lapsed this shit up?
Ashoka Jegroo: I mean shoot, I remember not too long ago, maybe the, the Post reported that unnamed local media sources we’re helping fund NYPD copaganda campaigns. Um, and also associating with the police foundation, whatever. I mean they straight up pay for it. I mean they didn’t name the straight up outlets. They didn’t name names, but like, I mean shoot, they straight up paid for the stuff and they have people that, it’s kind of incestuous almost too with the Post especially. I mean there are people who go back and forth from outlet to doing PR for the NYPD and back to doing a, you know, so-called journalism. It’s like these people are friends with each other a lot of time. They hang out with each other and they have common economic interests obviously as well. I mean basically I guess they have straight up common economic interests and that’s why mainstream media outlets and local media outlets their owners love the police.
Adam: So one of the things that happened in the last year that really I think surprised people, maybe not some people, but it surprised me, was that Spike Lee was paid $200,000 to do an ad campaign.
Ashoka Jegroo: Oh yeah.
Adam: To work on the ad campaigns for the New York Police Department. Now Spike Lee of course, made his name with talking about police violence and police racism. That’s how he got to start in his film career. What does that mean to you? What does it look like when our, I once bartended a private party for Absolut vodka that Spike Lee was at because he had just launched a Absolut Brooklyn vodka, brand of vodka, so he probably sold out a long time ago.
Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah.
Adam: And this was like 2009 without passing too much judgment. And of course, after getting paid $200,000 by the NYPD, you know, roughly at the same time he was filming BlacKkKlansman, which Boots Riley criticized for being basically pro-FBI, pro-police. To what extent does the co-option of people that are traditionally seen as being subversive or part of black culture, obviously Nicki Minaj was passing out turkeys.
Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah, handing out turkeys with the NYPD, yeah.
Adam: To what extent do you think that takes place? And how depressed does that make you?
Ashoka Jegroo: (Laughs.)
Adam: The point of the show is to depress people. I want to know how —
Nima: Because it’s our Christmas show.
Adam: (Laughs.) This actually is our Christmas show.
Ashoka Jegroo: (Chuckles.) Um, I mean, Spike Lee didn’t surprise me. I mean, I, I give props to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, I guess? Do The Right Thing, maybe?
Adam: Sure. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when he sold out.
Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah. Spike Lee and BlacKkKlansman, I mean, when I saw the article about the, about him doing, getting paid a whole bunch of money to do pro-NYPD copaganda pretty much and also when I heard about the plot for BlacKkKlansman, I mean I rolled my eyes, like I try to avoid these things and try to keep them out of my life and Spike Lee has been a person I’ve been trying to keep out of my life for a long time and I can’t pinpoint exactly when it was. But yeah. Nicki Minaj as well. Yeah I’m not a fan of Nicki Minaj, but this is becoming like, I guess me doing celebrity gossip right now at this point.
Adam: Well no because it’s not idle celebrity news. It’s actually part of a broader pattern, right? I mean the NYPD court people in the black community to sell a certain image.
Ashoka Jegroo: It’s really sad as well, I mean, like I also like make a lot of cynical jokes about how a lot of rappers, like Nicki Minaj, but all of the like, you know, lesser known rappers, I think like Corey Gunz or whatever, they will like be in tweets with NYPD shaking their hands. 50 cent does this all the goddamn time. Uh, he takes pictures, does stuff with the NYPD, I think he was at one of the, these fight events that the NYPD does. And there was an article about how the cops loved 50 at this event. There were yelling, “get the strap” at him and stuff like that. And back in the day like rappers used to talk about shooting cops like, and Tupac actually shot cops. I mean like how things have changed.
Nima: Right, and now Ice-T, Ice Cube and LL Cool J have it written into their Hollywood contracts that they can only play cops.
Ashoka Jegroo: Play cops. Exactly. Yeah. Ice-T is only playing cops from now until he dies I think. Yeah, it’s really sad. And that’s the guy who made “Cop Killer” too. It’s really sad that he went from that to that. But the Spike Lee stuff was stupid. I think his idea from what I remember was like, ‘oh this is gonna help the community relations’ or whatever the same shit that the cops goddamn say, same rhetoric or whatever. And this guy is supposed to be like, you know, woke.
Adam: Right. So a lot of this is laundered through this idea of community relations, which I want to kind of interrogate a little bit here because I think some people listening to this may think, ‘oh, you guys are just being a bunch of scoldy left-wingers who think that the police are inherently evil’ and that there’s no point in sort of trying to build quote unquote “community relations,” but I know that it’s something that you’ve written about, something that Josmar Trujillo has written about, something that other watchdogs of the police have written about, is that this community outreach narrative is actually a poison pill. It’s not, it’s not a thing. It’s literally just marketing and that so much is laundered through. I mean the 1994 Crime Bill was marketed as community policing. That’s what it was called. You can go, you can go actually read the bill and it’s called Community Policing. And that this notion that, you know, we can, we need more outreach. We need more white cops hugging black kids. That this kind of public relations forward approach to reform can be pretty toxic. And can you talk about this, this idea of like community relations and how it may be kind of muddies the waters in how we talk about the police and specifically how copaganda feeds into this?
Ashoka Jegroo: In my view, it’s absurd on its face to try to like approach the relationship between police and black and brown communities as one where there just needs to be better trust or better relationships between pretty much an oppressive force which historically oppressed black and brown communities in America for like centuries. What the police mean when they say better community relations is when you know black and brown people don’t complain about getting arrested for bullshit. That’s the peace they want.
Nima: Yeah. Obedience.
Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah. I mean the power dynamics never change. The police still maintain their ability to beat your ass for whatever, to arrest you for like petty crimes, from crimes of poverty. They can still stop you whenever the hell they want and use almost anything as a pretext for it. The power dynamics never seem to change. It’s just that these copaganda stories try to put like, you know, a nice little shiny gift wrapping, Christmas gift wrapping, around the same old oppressive relationship. I mean that’s all it is and it’s just the way to maintain it. That’s all it is.
Nima: So something that we were discussing earlier in the show, these so-called Santa stops where cops will pull people over ostensibly for a traffic violation and then surprise them with a $100 bill or a wrapped present or a gift card.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the thing is that it’s presented as this kind of jokey thing by the newscasters. It’s like, we talked about this when we described to the phenomenon, where it’s, you know, you see sirens in your rear view mirror and you look back, we’ve all been there and blah blah. It’s like kind of a joke, but it’s like, you know, for people who look like me it is kind of not a big deal, but it’s a life and death situation for a lot of people and they don’t seem to internalize that. And of course the people who are receiving the gifts, if they are African American or Latino, they’re like, ‘oh thank you.’ Like what are we, what are they supposed to do? Right?
Nima: Exactly. Because there are usually cameras around too.
Adam: They could get some guy jacked up on Meth who fucking, you know, is on parole, who pulls out an assault weapon. I mean, you know, it seems like a really odd thing to do and it gets more popular every single year.
Nima: Because it’s really just about power. So it’s the same thing that we see for stop-and-frisk that we see in Santa Stops. I mean it winds up having the same effect and it’s that there is an authority that you’re supposed to feel a certain way about and it’s either they are protecting you or they want to do right by you and they’re, you know, they are actively going out of their way to change your perception of what cops are. And so it winds up just being this complete show of force even when it’s kind of masked as a Christmas gift. So I just wanted to get your take on the Santa stops and I say Santa stops because that is what the press routinely calls them. They’re like an annual tradition at this point and usually, you know, it comes, like the money comes from a police funds that have been donated by citizens or—
Adam: I know in New York it probably comes from the Police Foundation in New York and these other small towns I’m curious where it comes from?
Nima: Well, because like one article about Sterlington, Louisiana says that it comes from the Keep Kids Safe Campaign, donations to that specific initiative, but then the cops were just giving out money. Can you kind of talk about the effect that a cop pulling someone over has and then the emotional terror that is exacted onto a population for this propaganda effect? Because obviously there’s always cameras around documenting this shit
Ashoka Jegroo: Exactly, yeah. This is like one of the most silly types of copaganda too and what they usually do is pretty much like we’ll go to the projects and give out turkeys or give out gifts to little black and brown children and make sure to have the media there to say have the black and brown children say ‘we love the police for giving us gifts’ or whatever. That’s usually how they do it in the city I think. For most of my life, from the age where I was able to be stopped-and-frisked, from like a teenager on, obviously, whenever I would see a policeman on the streets, I would automatically think like, what do I have on me? Am I doing anything wrong? Do they have any reason to, to like pull me over and mess with me right now? I mean, and this is like instinctive, grew into my bones pretty much like that, that kind of instinct. I still get it to this day even though I feel much more confident, you know, confronting police and talking to the police to their face or whatever and criticizing them to their face. But like in a car, I remember recently I was in DC, I was coming home from a party with other journalists or whatever, someone called me an Uber and the Uber driver went the wrong way down a one way street and I was like, I complained to the Uber driver like, why did you do that? But I didn’t see any police around and all of a sudden, out of nowhere there were lights everywhere and I cannot tell you the, the feeling of fear I had. And all that runs through my mind is like Philando Castile and Akai Gurley, you can just be an accident, like this cop could just pull the trigger and shoot you. And I remember the cops coming up to the Uber driver, the front door, whatever, uh, and she, she was like, I guess an immigrant or whatever and she had asked if I was drunk and she was like petrified. She was saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Just petrified of what the police were going to do to her. Um, I mean real black and brown people, working class people do not want to get a Christmas gift at that moment. That’s not the point where I want to get like, I don’t know, a freaking Ariana Grande’s CD or something like that, whatever they give out at these, at these things. Those are moments of sheer terror and we’ve seen plenty of videos where like people get pulled over and end up getting arrested and die like Sandra Bland or get shot in the car like Philando Castile and then the cop can use any goddamn reason to shoot you pretty much like the Philando Castile case, the cops said that he smelled marijuana and he thought ‘if this guy could smoke marijuana in front of his kids, he must be so dangerous, I have to shoot him.’ I mean, yeah, that’s, it’s pretty much not the moment you want to get a Christmas gift. It’s not a moment to make light of as well.
Nima: Well, thank you so much Ashoka Jegroo. It has been so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.
Ashoka Jegroo: No doubt. No doubt. You too.
Adam: That was, the part about how, like, it’s a form of emotional terrorism that, that people are very traumatized by what we would view as, or what I would deem as being kind of a routine traffic stop, is something that’s very emotionally charged for a lot of people. And the fact that it’s turned into a public relations device is pretty greasy. It’s pretty bad.
Nima: Yeah. No, it’s true. And Ash is actually a fantastic documenter of these things. A documentarian, especially on his Twitter account @AshAgony, A-S-H-A-G-O-N-Y, you should definitely follow him. He keeps the #copaganda going strong. You can always check out his work.
Adam: He documents like pretty much every major activist or major protest in New York for several years now. He’s one of the hardest working men in the business. And I’d love to get his perspective as someone, you know, he’s a native of Brooklyn. He’s dealt with his crap his whole life and he’s someone who I’ve been following for a while, so definitely check them out.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. We should note that we will be taking a short holiday break and will return in 2019.
Adam: Yeah. Thanks so much for a great year. We’ve been very humbled by the listenership and support and we hope to see you next year with more of the content that you crave.
Nima: So, thanks as always to all of our listeners. You keep the show going and uh, please do tell your friends and family, share it around the chestnuts roasting on an open fire with your eggnog. Listen to Citations Needed with your family. It is always so appreciated, especially the support from our Patreon critic level supporters. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for a wonderful year. We’ll catch you in 2019.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 12, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan. Post by Sophia Steinert-Evoy.